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Friday, July 19, 2024
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Unusual NBA Draft Starts With French Teenager Again

  • Zaccharie Risacher went No. 1 overall to the Hawks.
  • His draft class is riddled with questions, and partly overshadowed by a potential second-rounder.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

BROOKLYN — For just about every reason, the 2024 NBA draft is an abnormal one.

The Hawks made it to the play-in, then secured the No. 1 pick in the lottery with just 3% odds.

The draft class is lacking a can’t-miss generational talent, and for the first time, the draft is being spread over two nights.

But there was one familiar event at the top of the draft:

A Frenchman went first again. A year after the Spurs took Victor Wembanyama with the top pick, Atlanta made Zaccharie Risacher the second straight French teenager to go No. 1 overall. Risacher is a 19-year-old, 6’9” forward who, like much of the rest of his draft class, will have to grow his game to stand out in the NBA. Risacher will be eligible for a four-year contract worth about $57 million from the Hawks; the exact number will be determined when the NBA finalizes next season’s salary cap later this summer.

Risacher’s countryman Alexandre Sarr went No. 2 overall to the Wizards, who are in the throes of a years-long tanking project. Sarr has played all over the world for teams in Spain and Australia and for Overtime Elite in the United States. The seven-foot center from Toulouse, France declined to work out for the Hawks before the draft.

Risacher and Sarr were the consensus top-two picks leading up to the draft.

It was a French takeover at the top of the first round, as Tidjane Salaun went No. 6 overall to the Hornets. Reed Sheppard was the first U.S. collegian taken, by the Rockets with the No. 3 pick.

Behind the three Frenchmen, six of the top 12 picks were international or G League Ignite players before a run on collegians in the middle of the first round.

Wembanyama is a tough act to follow—the 2023 draft drew nearly 5 million viewers, the NBA’s highest ever—and the new international players haven’t spurred nearly the same chatter leading up to the event.

Perhaps the strongest fan reaction—at least before the Knicks’ traded the No. 24 pick—came when commissioner Adam Silver saluted the NBA champion Boston Celtics, earning hearty boos from the Brooklyn crowd. The Celtics, of course, built their championship roster with the Nets’ draft picks traded in the 2013 Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett deal.

It’s the exact opposite scenario of this year’s WNBA draft, where college hoops viewership and hype around the No. 1 pick Caitlin Clark lifted the draft to its best viewership in more than two decades, and took place just eight days after the tournament ended.

The 2024 draft is also sandwiched between two highly anticipated top picks. Wembanyama created immense intrigue with his lanky build, versatility, and 7’4” height, which made him one of the tallest players in the league. LeBron James called him a “generational talent” months before the draft. And scouts are already buzzing about Duke-commit Cooper Flagg, who is speculated to go No. 1 overall in 2025. The 17-year-old reclassified so he could head to college a year early, and is also receiving some of that once-in-a-generation hype.

And perhaps the oddest part of this year’s draft is the fact that the most talked-about prospect, Bronny James, isn’t expected to be a high pick going into the first night. Many insiders project him to go 55th to the Lakers, if he’s drafted at all.

Given all these peculiarities, it might be great timing that the league is also using this year as a guinea pig for a new two-night format. The first round is Wednesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and the second is Thursday at ESPN’s South Street Seaport Studios in Manhattan. In a normal year, a separate second round might be a viewership dud. But the new structure could see a viewership boost on night two this year as fans tune in to see whether the Lakers, or any other team looking to entice his father, take James in the second round.

The first night ended on a semi-expected cliffhanger: James did not go in the first round. That should favor the two-day format and bring more attention to Thursday night’s show.

In addition to the Lakers, James also worked out with the Suns, but turned down every other team’s invitation. The 55th pick is the only one the Lakers have in the second round as of now; they selected Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht with the 17th pick. The Suns currently do not have a second-round pick after losing it for a tampering violation last year.

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